The defendant in this case, Johnny Allen Harris, was convicted of three counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct involving his stepdaughter, JCR. At the trial, JCR testified that Harris had her perform oral sex on him on several occasions when she was five and six years old; she said Harris would come into her bedroom, wake her up, and then take her to another part of the house. JCR described the abuse, including that Harris told her she would get into trouble if she told anyone. After Harris moved out, JCR told one of her sisters, AR, and then her mother about the alleged abuse; JCR’s mother then called the police and took JCR to a pediatrician. AR, who shared the bedroom with JCR, also testified; she stated that Harris would take JCR from the bedroom to get a drink of water, and that JCR would return with him later, acting scared.
Harris denied sexually abusing JCR and stated that JCR’s mother “put her up to this” to punish him for moving out. He stated that JCR’s mother was “very confrontational” and that she threatened to call the police on him.
Dr. Carrie Ricci, the pediatrician who examined JCR, testified that she asked the child direct questions “for the purpose of providing her with the treatment and seeing what, if anything – the diagnosis [was].” JCR told Ricci that Harris “had woken her up from sleep, taken her downstairs, and had her suck on his penis until yellow stuff came out.” Ricci diagnosed JCR with child sexual abuse and nocturnal enuresis (bedwetting); the doctor testified that she arrived at that diagnosis because she believed that JCR had been abused. On cross-examination, Ricci testified that she saw no evidence of sexual abuse in JCR and acknowledged that “the majority of the history was obtained from Mom.” Ricci arrived at her diagnosis based on JCR’s statement to her “and that was enough for me to diagnose her as sexual abuse [sic]” without any physical symptoms.
In closing argument, the prosecution framed the issue as a credibility contest between JCR and Harris: “[W]hat it comes down to is do you believe [JCR] beyond a reasonable doubt or don’t you? . . . You have her saying it happened and you have the defendant saying it didn’t happen. Who do you believe?” The prosecution argued that JCR’s statement to Ricci about the sexual conduct with Harris was consistent with JCR’s other statements, but the prosecutor did not mention Ricci’s diagnosis of child abuse. Harris’ attorney argued in closing that Ricci’s testimony showed a “lack of proof,” stressing that the doctor’s opinion was based on a history provided by JCR’s mother, not on any physical evidence.
After his conviction, Harris appealed, arguing in part that Ricci’s testimony about what JCR told her was inadmissible hearsay and irrelevant. The Court of Appeals found no error and affirmed Harris’s convictions and sentences. But the Supreme Court overruled the Court of Appeals in part: The trial court erred by allowing Ricci’s testimony that JCR had been sexually abused, and Harris’ counsel was ineffective for failing to object to that testimony, the Supreme Court held. The Supreme Court remanded the case to the Court of Appeals to “determine whether [Harris] was prejudiced by the admission of the doctor’s diagnosis and whether [Harris] is entitled to a new trial.”
In an unpublished per curiam opinion, the Court of Appeals upheld Harris’ convictions, concluding that, despite the improperly-admitted evidence of the doctor’s diagnosis, Harris was not prejudiced and was not denied a fair trial.
“To prove prejudice, a defendant must show that the result of the proceeding would have been different but for defense counsel’s error,” the appellate court explained.
“A medical expert’s opinion that a victim was sexually assaulted based on the ‘emotional state of, and history given by, the complainant’ rather than on the expert’s ‘medical capabilities or expertise’ is inadmissible. The rationale for precluding such evidence is that an opinion based on the self-reported history of a victim is nothing more than an opinion that the victim is telling the truth.”
Accordingly, Ricci’s diagnosis testimony was improper – but “we conclude that its admission does not require reversal,” the panel stated. “Counsels’ arguments did not focus on Dr. Ricci’s diagnosis.” Indeed, in cross-examination, Harris’ attorney used Ricci’s statements to support Harris’ theory of the case – that JCR’s mother fabricated the accusations to punish Harris for leaving her, the appellate court observed.
“Moreover, the properly admitted evidence at trial would allow a rational jury to find Harris guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. JCR testified in graphic detail about the sexual acts that Harris forced her to perform. JCR’s testimony alone was sufficient to sustain Harris’s conviction. Also, her sister’s testimony about Harris taking JCR, and only JCR, from their bedroom for water in the middle of the night, and JCR’s demeanor upon returning to her bed, supported JCR’s version of events. JCR gave consistent stories to her sister, her mother, and Dr. Ricci. In light of the evidence of Harris’s guilt, the admission of the improper evidence did not affect the outcome of the trial. Harris was not denied a fair trial and is not entitled to retrial,” the Court of Appeals concluded.
Harris appealed. In a December 14, 2012 order, the Supreme Court said it would hear oral argument on whether to grant Harris’ application for leave to appeal or take other action. The Court directed, “At oral argument, the parties shall address whether the defendant was prejudiced by the admission of Dr. Carrie Ricci’s diagnosis that the complainant was the victim of child sexual abuse, and whether the defendant is entitled to a new trial.”